Thursday, January 8, 2015

Setting goals vs achieving goals


An exchange with an acquaintance about my running goals this year made me realize how important my perception of my ultra-running might be to my success at achieving the goals I’ve set myself. What others think about what I do may stroke the ego but is actually either irrelevant or even dangerous.

The exchange can be summarised as follows (much less fluid since it took me a while to actually admit to what I had planned for the year—more about that below):

“So, good holidays?”

“No bad, kept the training going.”

“Ah yeah? What are your plans this year?”

“Well… A 50-miler early March, then 100-miler with 23’000 feet of elevation mid-April, I hope to squeeze in the Geneva marathon two weeks later, then I’ll enjoy the summer a bit before doing an Ironman end of August, and finally I’d really like to do a sub-10 hour 100km race end September, but we’ll have to see how the speed training goes…”

Having immersed myself since last year in blogs by mad hatters like James Adams, who ran across the U.S. in 69 days and whose favourite race is the Spartathlon (which he's finished three times), or Paul Ali, who ran in one year ran the Centurion Grand Slam (4 100-milers) + GUCR (145 miles) + T184 Endurance Run (184 miles) + something like 6 marathons + a few 50-milers I think... Well, I haven’t come to consider my own goals as particularly impressive, rather pedestrian in fact. Almost little league... I’m fine with it, and I’m not trying to compete (I could never squeeze in that many races in a year even if my body could take it), but it’s just that it didn’t seem like anything particularly earth-shattering. But summarizing the list of my goals for 2015 to an acquaintance made me realize that “hey it’s not bad at all!”

For many, any one of those events could be a major goal for the year, while for others it’s just taking it easy… It's useless to compare oneself to anyone else (we all have our own backgrounds and lives to deal with).

That’s fine, that’s a good place to be. Positive and proud (therefore energized and excited about the year—nothing worse than being jaded). But seeing the bewilderment in my acquaintance’s eyes (and words), my thought immediately after that was: “Can I really do all that? Am I biting off more than I can chew.” Particularly the sub 10-hour 100km… But then I realized: if I don’t believe I can do it, then I won’t be able too…

The other dangerous thought is on the other spectrum: “Indeed, am I not amazing to do all that?!”

Sure, no-one likes a braggart, but it’s more than that.

Since my DNF last August at the UT4M, I’ve decided to avoid talking about any upcoming ultras with my friends, family (apart from my wife) and acquaintances. Here’s the thing: I might be alone in this, and call me needy or attention-starved or lacking in self-esteem, but I do derive some sense of pride and satisfaction at the perceived craziness of running ultras. That said, it should really only come after actually running the race - but so often you get the glory beforehand. And though training for an ultra is certainly worthy of admiration, and that admiration is earned whether the race is completed or not. I realized last year when speaking about the UT4M with its 104 miles and 35’000 feet of elevation gain that people reacted as if I had already done it - and I bought into it! I began to believe it myself…


Now there’s a difference between tackling a challenge with a positive mindframe and the conviction that “I can do it” (it won’t guarantee success, but if you line up at the start of an ultra—or any challenge—thinking “I can’t do this”, you’ll definitely fail!), and somehow feeling that you’ve already achieved your goal. I am now convinced that this undeserved sense of achievement contributed to my being unprepared for the pain and suffering of the race. I thought, somehow, that it would be easier and I wasn't ready to bear the tough times. In Jordan, when it got rough I was looking for ways to overcome whatever was bother me; at the UT4M, I started thinking of reasons to quit.

So the key is gaining some perspective: setting oneself some goals that are a little scary and uncertain in terms of success (otherwise where’s the challenge and bravery and learning curve?), yet considering them normal and achievable and definitely not feeling in awe of oneself until they have actually been achieved!

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